A 2021 Mars Expedition Sounds Exciting but Does It Make Sense?

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

About a year ago, Dennis Tito formed an foundation, Inspiration Mars, whose goal was to send a married couple on a fly-by space mission to Mars and back. This would have to be launched in 2018 to take advantage of the relative alignments of the Earth and Mars. There are obvious challenges to overcome to make this successful, notably funding and the lack of demonstrated life support systems that can last 500 days with no resupply. A few months ago, Tito testified before Congress, noting that he would need the help of NASA to pull off this mission, specifically calling out the need for a heavy launch vehicle like the Space Launch System (SLS), which is now in development.

Now a some members of Congress (specifically Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee) is proposing a very similar mission but sponsored by NASA. Note that the idea did not originate with NASA.  This would be launched in 2021 and takes advantage of a Venus fly-by for a gravity assist, and results in a mission only a month or so longer than the 2018 plan by Inspiration Mars. It would be the second launch of the SLS and the inaugural flight of the Orion deep-space vehicle. This plan, as well as the Inspiration Mars plan, requires a habitat module which does not exist today, although could be based on American or Russian modules used on the International Space Station. The 2021 launch date provides a bit more realistic schedule to develop some of the missing pieces for such an audacious mission compared to the Inspiration Mars plan.

But does this 2021 plan make any sense?  Does it lead to the permanent settlement of space, or is it part of a long term strategy of human exploration of deep space, or will it leave us with any new capabilities that could be used to develop lunar resources or advance the date of putting people on the surface of Mars? My initial thought is no, it does none of these very well, but there may still be a reason to embrace it (which I’ll get to in a bit).

For establishing a solid foothold on the Moon, we will need landers and equipment to process the local regolith to extract resources. Any deep space mission, be it to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars, needs to be part of a long term strategic plan to establish mankind’s permanent presence on other solar system bodies. This mission doesn’t address those needs. For putting a crew on the surface of Mars, we need landers (again) and long-lived life support equipment. Both the new proposal and the Inspiration Mars concept will need a reliable closed life support system, so either of these would be a step in that direction. Ideally, one would like to develop that technology and test it in low Earth orbit or in cislunar space, where a rescue or recovery would be possible should something go wrong. I have not seen a detailed development plan for these missions, so perhaps they are including that. But if that is the case, what value added is the cost of this fly-by mission provide you since you already have developed one of the technologies needed for a Mars landing mission? This is where we get to the “other” reason this mission may make sense.

Is a Venus and Mars human fly-by mission valuable from a gee-whiz perspective that might just incite an increased demand for missions that would actually lead to permanent settlements? We have been looking for something for the public to get excited about. Could this be it? The Inspiration Mars folks admitted this from the start, so is Congress picking up on that approach?  Or are they just looking for an entertaining space spectacular (it might be a great television reality series) to justify the existence of their giant SLS rocket?

While a fly-by mission with a crew generates no science results that a robotic probe couldn’t provide at a much lower cost, and doesn’t really put footprints on Mars, and leaves no real infrastructure for future long-term development, the impact of actually going to Mars may generate intangible benefits that are difficult to imagine at this time.

Such a mission would indeed be a real interplanetary expedition. There is something to be said for that. It may not have any great scientific justification, but it could have a big impact on society at a more fundamental level. Is this the “statement” mission that underscores (regains, for some) America’s leadership in space that a lot of people have been calling for?

This doesn’t have to be a terribly expensive mission. The SLS is happening anyway. This may be a relatively cheap way to justify the expensive SLS development. The hab module shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. It would be similar to ISS modules. And we’ve been working on CLLSS for a long time. The technology to pull off this mission isn’t that far off, but certainly there is a lot of development required. At this early stage, however, making a believable cost-benefits trade study is difficult.

Are there better ways to spend what little money NASA has at their disposal? Wouldn’t investing in a large lunar lander be a more logical next step? That would require a long term strategy for human planetary exploration, which we still don’t have. But remember, the benefits of this proposal are not primarily driven by logic. If it encourages some political commitment to a long term space program, is that really so bad?

More Space Policy Battles Heating Up in Washington

Commentary by Michael Mackowski, 6/21/13

This week (6/19/13) a US House of Representatives appropriations committee that authorizes NASA’s budget issued a draft bill that forbids NASA from pursuing any asteroid retrieval mission and instead, directs them to lay out a roadmap for building bases on the Moon and Mars. Overall, there was a significant budget reduction and no new funds were authorized for these new missions. There was also a lot of budget shuffling, with some funds moved from Earth observing to planetary missions, and a bit put back into the Commercial Crew program.

The House committee thinks the asteroid mission is a “costly distraction” from the main goal of “sustained human presence” on the Moon and Mars.  NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said that a lunar prerequisite is actually the distraction to getting to Mars. The asteroid mission was proposed as an intermediate step beyond where we are now and something that could be done on a limited budget (shorter duration than a Mars mission and no expensive lander required). So once again, there are too many cooks in this kitchen. NASA, Congress, the Administration, industry, and the science community all have different agendas and this just looks like so much more disagreement on a clear plan forward. Everyone wants to be in charge.

This latest development is disappointing in that it is another unfunded mandate for NASA and an attempt by Congress to make scientific and engineering decisions.  They should let NASA figure out the best route to exploring the solar system, and leave technical decisions to engineers. Pundits do not expect this version of the NASA appropriations bill to make it through the Senate, so expect more battles in Washington as the summer heats up.

Catching Up

After a very long absence, Epic Future Space is back with updates about SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Bigelow Aerospace, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. It’s been an amazing past couple of months in space.

For more Information about the stories I talked about click the following:
SpaceX CRS-1 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX CRS-2 Mission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceX_C…
SpaceX’s Grasshopper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grasshop…
Orbital Sciences Antares Flight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antares_…
Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM Module: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigelow_…
Virgin Galactic first powered test flight: http://www.virgingalactic.com/news/it…

If you’d like to hear Orbital Transit: http://www.reverbnation.com/orbitaltr…
And check out Audio Martyr: http://www.reverbnation.com/audiomartyr

Another gem from Epic Future Space. Thanks Mikhail

Orbital Sciences Launches a New Rocket

ImageUp until now the word Antares has had only one meaning in our language, the given name of a star, but not anymore.  Sure, it is still the name of a giant red binary star, the brightest in the constellation Scorpio, about 424 light-years from Earth. The word Antares has its roots in ancient Greek meaning simulating Mars.  It looked red to them, just like Mars.

However, things change.  On Sunday, April 21, from a beach on Wallops Island Virginia, our own Orbital Sciences launched its newest horse in its extensive stable of rockets, the Antares. And for the first time in my memory, a first launch of a new rocket didn’t end prematurely in a puff of smoke or debris cloud. It went so smoothly that almost no one heard about it. That’s success in the rocket industry but a marketing failure.

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ESA to Supply ATV for Use as Orion Service Module

ATV / Orion
European Space Agency ATV as Orion Service Module
Image Credit:

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reached an agreement with NASA to build a Service Module for the Orion spacecraft based on their Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), which has been a workhorse in the resupply of the International Space Station (ISS) since 2008.

Sol 150 – Curiosity uses Brush Tool

Curiosity Brush
Curiosity Brush Use Cleans Rock Surface on Mars
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

On Sol 150, the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) used its Dust Removal Tool (DRT) to clean the surface of the rock target called “Ekwir_1.”

The image was captured by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI).

The DRT is a motorized wire-bristle brush on the turret at the end of the rover’s arm.

Curiosity – Sol 130

By the middle of December, Curiosity had reached the Glenelg region of Gale Crater and descended into the Yellowknife Bay depression. Curiosity is now exploring for the first target rock for it’s hammering drill.

After leaving Bradbury Landing, Curiosity spent extensive time at Rocknest (Sols 55-100), and followed this with investigations around Point Lake (Sols 102-124).

Curiosity Map
Map of Curiosity’s Travels During the first 130 Sols
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona